So, this is how it feels like to be living out Instagram hashtags — flying 600 meters above a strange landscape that’s as old as time. It is 6 a.m. and the sun is slowly coming up on the horizon in freezing temperatures.
Around us are 25 or maybe even 35 hot-air balloons, some of them wildly colorful and others very commercial and boring. They are slowly rising with their baskets or gondolas carrying about 20 passengers who have seen, just minutes before in pitch-black darkness, how hot-air balloons work (they operate on the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer as they lay flat on the ground and an inflator fan fills them with air that is then heated).
The experience of being up there is, in one word, “Instagrammable.” In three words, “It’s f*cking Instagrammable,” which is how we seem to be living our traveling lives these days — filtered, color-manipulated and viewed with awed but skeptical eyes.
But the hour-long experience of being in a hot-air balloon gliding over Cappadocia is everything that is and yet more than the pictures you’ve seen before on someone else’s vacation. For starters, the landscape is surreal and seeing it at sunrise makes the experience even more so.
I’ve seen these colors many times before since I first went to Turkey last year and fell in love with the country hard and fast. But in Cappadocia, the sunrise is something else. It is a slow gathering of pigments that start out in the distance — some light, some orange, and then it gathers strength and hits you in the face as the day progresses ever so slightly.
You don’t need a filter for this, but you do need to put down your phone and selfie stick…and just enjoy the moment.
Cappadocia is not actually a city, but a region that’s routinely described as looking like another planet whose geography has been evolving for the past 60 million years, a result of volcanic tuff, basalt and andestine rock.
And that’s exactly how the Göreme Valley of Cappadocia looks from the ground or from the air — otherworldly.
Our pilot Buket, the Turkish word for “bouquet of flowers,” is one of only seven female pilots across the valley. She says that in the summer, you can have about a hundred balloons in the air in the morning or afternoon. The balloons operated by different companies take turns at the highest and lowest positions. The weird thing is, even if you fear heights — you’ll still want to take this ride. I can never walk across the glass floors of observation decks or towers, but riding the balloon, I didn’t feel my knees shaking as I looked down at the valley seemingly plucked out of science fiction.
To celebrate the touchdown back on ground, Buket and her crew pop open bottles of champagne and give us token medals for surviving. Because as our tour guide Altan and the crew at the holding area told us before we went up, “Hope to see you again.”
Damn right we deserve champagne before breakfast!
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The Göreme Open Air Museum in the valley has Christian churches that date back to the 11th century and most frescoes inside have been defaced. While some paintings still have bodies, the faces of Jesus Christ, his apostles and the saints have been erased because Islam forbids the use of images in its practice.
Except in one called Dark Church (it has only one window) and hence protected from the elements across the centuries and marauders. Here, many of the frescoes have been spared especially the ones on the ceiling; they look as if they were painted just a few decades ago and not a thousand years ago.
Called Karanlik Kilise (literally Dark Church in Turkish), it has a cross-ribbed vaulting central dome and a central dome and one or two small apses — and it is entirely carved into the rock as the other churches in the Göreme Valley.
The paintings look so beautiful even though they predate the Renaissance Period when European painters were doing their best works with vegetable dyes. The other remarkable thing is — how did they create such frescoes when it was so dark inside? How did they illustrate the Transfiguration of Christ, the Nativity, the Crucifixion or Judas’ Betrayal of Christ on the walls, niches and domes? With polished metal sheets or mirrors to reflect light outside and in through the narrow corridor to light up the space inside.
You wouldn’t think you’d find something like this in a cave, but there it is.You wouldn’t think either that Turkey, whose population is 99-percent Muslim and only one-percent Christian today, was so pivotal in the Christian faith because after Christ died, some of his apostles went to this land to spread the gospel. And so did his mother.
The House of the Virgin Mary, located on Mt. Koressos, is near the ancient city of Ephesus and Selçuk in the province of Izmir. It’s said that this is where John the Beloved spirited her away and where she spent her last days before, as Christians believe, her assumption into heaven.
It is a small stone house, now a shrine, overlooking the Aegean Sea that John was supposed to have built for her. The location was determined from a book based on the visions of an Augustinian nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich. Her visions were published after her death at the beginning of the 19th century in a book and she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Catholic popes and pilgrims have been coming to this house for three centuries, though the Vatican has not officially declared it to be the house of the Virgin Mary.
What I like best about this small compound is the wishing wall, where people write their wishes on paper and stick them into the net or fabric. There seems to be no space anymore to put your own wishes as it already holds thousands upon thousands of rolled and folded paper.
But you realize soon enough that amid millions of wishes that have gone through this wall, you always find a space for your own personal intentions.
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Another ancient site in the region is Aphrodisias, the city of Aphrodite, goddess of love, but in Anatolia (which forms the greater part of Turkey), the goddess is the Mother Goddess of fertility known as Cybele.
The Temple of Aphrodite was a focal point of the town, but the character of the building was altered when it became a Christian basilica. The Aphrodisian sculptors became renowned and benefited from a plentiful supply of marble and much of their work can be seen around the site today. Some of the highlights in Aphrodisias include the Stadium, the Baths of Hadrian and the Theater.
The best spot to take a group picture is at the Monumental Gate ruins. Called Tetrapylon, meaning “four gates,” it served as a ceremonial gateway. During the height of Aphrodisias, these grounds saw epic parades and shows mounted for visitors and residents.
We look at the incredible background, at the soaring columns and the gorgeous carvings at the top — and promptly hand Altan 26 cameras.
Before we even get to the strange scenery at Cappadocia, Hierapolis leaves us awed. Located in Pamukkale or Cotton Palace in Turkish, it is made of mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins that look like freeform swimming pools.
It is getting cold in the late afternoon but some visitors are wearing beach shorts (and one girl is wearing a bikini) because the natural basins are filled with hot-springs water. Hierapolis is another Unesco World Heritage Site and its ruins include Roman baths, temples and other monuments.
It seems that every place we make a stop leaves us either in awe of their uniqueness, or at home for their familiarity — a spiritual one, if you will —that connects with us on a deeper level.